This fantasy epic by Mark Smylie tells the story of Artesia — a witch, priestess, concubine, and warrior captain — in lovely watercolor painted art. The heavy paper in the collections shows off the images to advantage, supporting this detailed tale of war among various kingdoms.
The first volume covers Artesia taking over the castle and throne of her former lover. Before her battles, she prays to her goddesses for bravery and clear sight and victory. Her spells let her see spirits after the battle, angelic women taking the ghosts of the dead men. There’s a complicated structure of goddesses, gods, factions, and kingdoms populating this series, but behind it all is Artesia’s quest to be herself. She is a woman making her way in a man’s world, where women are lovers, or even makers of potions to bewitch men, but not warriors.
Artesia, though, channels a righteous anger. Her mother was burned as a witch, and Artesia has to deal with that history and influence without defining herself solely by it. Her king and lover is jealous of her, both of the loyalty his army gives her as their talented leader, and of the way his concubines, her bedmates, love her more. It all boils down to male and female. Artesia’s group rebels when their king denies the goddess they worship in favor of their god, called the divine king. There are many boundaries broken throughout the story, whether those defining proper behavior, or conscribing Artesia’s place in society, or those between this world and the next.
The second story, Artesia Afield, has Artesia facing a different society that isn’t as accepting of a female leader. She’s back in the land of her birth, joined with other kingdoms in battle against a common enemy. She has to determine whether she should name herself queen, risking the label of usurper, or let others name her instead.
The soothsaying of wise women is a convenient device to remind the reader of what has happened so far, and the third volume, Artesia Afire, has such a scene early on. It nicely sets the mythic tone, of Artesia being fated for larger-than-life events. Artesia wins her battles by whatever means she can, fighting or bargaining. The latter is made easier by all she and her forces have in common with their enemies, in some ways more than they have in common with their allies.
To build alliances, she takes royals to her bed; her leadership is carried through everything she does. She can’t separate her heritage from her actions from her beliefs or her philosophy. She honors the gods by doing well all things: fighting, feasting, celebrating her body and those of others. There is much more to Artesia’s world than the physical and visible. There’s an active spirit world, influencing all activities. She sees more than most as she opens herself to their aid.
When the various regions and factions and unfamiliar names of tribes and leaders and gods and so on become a little confusing, there’s lots of supporting material available. Several pages at the back of each collection explain the divinities, tribes, myths, calendar, and kings. There are also three annuals published as comic issues in which there’s more background information, maps, short stories with the characters, and letter pages. The third annual is particularly ambitious, with 32 pages of timeline, laying out the significant events in the history of this world. It’s meant to be a prologue for gaming supplements coming out later.
The appeal of the series for me is reading about a powerful woman attempting to balance her loves, her purpose, her faith, and other conflicting parts of her life while dealing with the memory and legacy of her mother. She’s a leader in a man’s world, forced to chart her own way. The dreamlike art, especially the male faces, reminds me of the work of Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil).
This isn’t a series to read if you’re bothered by nudity; Artesia’s first costume consists of full armor over her torso and arms with only a chainmail loincloth and steel kneepads beneath the waist. (This was later modified to be more practical.) As well, some of the issues have full nudity and many sexual encounters (not to mention bloody battle scenes and orgies) but it’s all part of the story, and well-done.
As escapism, I enjoy watching a woman with a sword kill men who dare to call her a harlot. The themes are symbolic of the conflicts women face today. Some of the other female characters dislike Artesia for taking the way of men, “blood and steel and shit”, when she could have taken their more spiritual, magical way. She’s actually trying to balance both and find a way that works for her regardless of tradition.
There’s a great sequence in Artesia Afield where the female spirits talk about what they wanted from life: to be worshipped, to inspire awe and love and fear, to be rich, to be remembered, to make their teachers proud, “to be shameless, and cruel, and beautiful!” All in all, that’s not a bad epitaph.